The State and the Self: Identity and Identities

The State and the Self: Identity and Identities

by Maren Behrensen


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781783485802
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, Inc.
Publication date: 11/30/2017
Series: Off the Fence: Morality, Politics and Society Series
Pages: 144
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.50(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Maren Behrensen is a post-doctoral researcher at the Institute for Christian Social Ethics at the University of Münster, Germany.

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The Metaphysics of Personal Identity

In the early morning hours of 31 August 2004, a Burger King employee in Richmond Hill, Georgia, found a naked, unconscious man behind the restaurant's dumpster. The man had several head injuries, his body was sunburnt and covered in ant bites, and he appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties. He was nursed back to good physical health in the following weeks and months by hospitals and shelters, and a charity organization paid for eye surgery to remove cataracts that had left him blind.

But when the man had regained full consciousness, he could not remember who he was or what he had been doing in Georgia. He had no identity documents on him when he was found and he could remember only vague fragments of his previous life, with at least a twenty-year gap between what seemed like his memories of living in Indiana and Colorado and his reappearance in Richmond Hill. One of these vague fragments was the given name 'Benjaman' and so the man eventually adopted the name Benjaman Kyle, in part, because its initials corresponded to those of the case name assigned to him at the first hospital that had treated him: 'Burger King Unknown'. Although his injuries suggested an attack, local police never launched an official investigation into Kyle's case. The doctors and nurses who tended to him assumed that his inability to recall his identity and his history would be temporary. But Kyle's memory never returned. Three years later, he was diagnosed with severe retrograde amnesia.


Kyle's story attracted local and national media interest in the United States. In 2008, he appeared on the Dr. Phil show in an attempt to find people who could remember him and tell him who he was. But this plea to reconstruct his identity was as unsuccessful as the FBI's efforts to find his fingerprints in their databases and to list him as a 'missing person' – although it was not his physical presence but his history that was missing. Unlike in standard missing person cases, Kyle's whereabouts were known but his official identity was unknown, and there were no traces of Kyle's former life that could be tied to his current self. In 2009, 'genealogical detective', Colleen Fitzpatrick, assembled a research team to uncover Kyle's genetic history. They worked on his case for years. Fitzpatrick's team narrowed the pool of Kyle's potential genetic relatives to two family names, but then Kyle suddenly broke off all contact with her – not unlike other instances in which he alienated those who attempted to help him.

In 2011, John Wikstrom, then a film student at Florida State University, sought out Kyle to shoot a documentary about him. The short documentary, Finding Benjaman, became another plea for help. When Wikstrom found Kyle, he was sleeping in a park in Jacksonville, living off donations and whatever little money he could earn under the counter. In the seven years since the incident in Richmond Hill, Kyle had been unable to re-establish an official identity. Authorities assumed that he had been registered somewhere in the United States under his former name and social security number, but because Kyle remembered neither and could not produce any other valid identification, they refused to issue a new identity. Without a social security number or any other form of official identity, he could not be lawfully employed, he could not access public resources such as libraries or schools, and he could not sign contracts and was thus unable to rent an apartment or buy a mobile phone. Even homeless shelters had turned him away.

Wikstrom's documentary, which played at several high-profile film festivals, reignited interest in the case. Due to the engagement of a Florida State Representative, Kyle was able to obtain a replacement identity card; a local restaurant owner in Jacksonville offered him a steady job and housing; and eventually another genealogist and television personality, CeCe Moore, took over Kyle's case, igniting a bitter rivalry between her and her former colleague, Colleen Fitzpatrick. On 15 September 2015, almost exactly eleven years after he had been found unconscious behind that dumpster in Georgia, Benjaman Kyle announced on his Facebook profile that Moore's team found his genetic relatives and his former identity, thanking her and all the friends and charities who had supported him through the years. Kyle had his social security number restored and new identity documents issued in his birth name on 21 September 2015, as reported in the Orlando Sentinel a day later. For their article about the restoration of his official identity, the Orlando Sentinel chose the subtitle, 'Amnesia Stole His Identity for 11 Years'. But this seems plainly false: Benjaman Kyle had his identity returned to him in spite of his amnesia, and it was not the amnesia that had stolen it, but whoever or whatever caused the loss of his identity documents and made him fall through the cracks of American bureaucracy. He mused to journalist Matt Wolfe – who wrote a long feature story about Kyle's case in 2016 – that the main reason he had kept on searching for his history was not a desire to reconnect with his past but access to social security: his 'civil death' appeared much more threatening to him than his inability to remember. In a literal sense, Kyle's identity was lost when it then proved impossible to find any official records of his existence prior to the attack. Indeed, one of the unsolved mysteries of the case is that, despite the fact that Kyle's birth name is known now, there is a span of more than twenty years during which there are no traces of Kyle's existence, neither under his birth name, nor his adopted name.

Even the notion that it was hard genetic evidence that finally revealed his true identity is misleading: it was not the genetic evidence as such that did this, but the instrumental role it played in re-establishing connections to records of Kyle's former life. One of the most moving moments of Wikstrom's documentary is Kyle's reflection on the fact that for years, and despite all the media attention, no one had been missing him: 'When you think about it, it's pretty pathetic if there's no one that's actually looking for someone that disappeared.' It is this reflection that might also explain his initial reluctance to divulge information about his birth name or details about the genealogical research conducted by Fitzpatrick's and Moore's teams. He may have wondered what his old identity would be worth if there was no one to whom it mattered. Colleen Fitzpatrick once suggested that he shied away from having his mystery solved because it might uncover an unhappy past.

Kyle has since re-connected with two surviving brothers and moved back to the city of his birth, Lafayette, Indiana – but he appears to keep to himself. Over the years, he received plenty of attention as a medical curiosity, a bureaucratic anomaly and as a 'human interest' story. But why should his story be of philosophical interest? At first glance, it seems as if we have two separate themes to Kyle's ordeal, with at best a tragic but coincidental connection between them: One is the unusually severe and lasting amnesia; the other is the refusal of the authorities to provide him with a new official identity. The point can also be put in analogy to what the Orlando Sentinel's headline suggests: One part of the story is about the brute physical facts of his identity; the other is about whether and how that identity is represented by official channels.

What I want to show, however, is that the connection between the two parts is much closer than what the given view suggests. The questions about Kyle's genetic relatives cannot be separated from the question of why no one came looking for him for such a long time; and both questions are obviously intertwined with the serious obstacles he faced without an official identity. Kyle's enthusiastic reaction to finally receiving a new identity card and his reflection on not being missed by anyone suggest that what mattered to him most was the fact that his identity was not recognized and remembered by anyone for eleven years. The identity rooted in the memories of his previous life and his upbringing was obliterated as much by the fact that no one came forward to identify him as by his amnesia – although the identity he created for himself as a response to this situation could not gain any official status, while it was recognized by new friends and acquaintances.


We might be tempted to ascribe the devastation of Kyle's identity to his inability to access his memories. In practical and moral terms, however, what seemed much more devastating to him was the lack and the loss of recognition, both personal and official, in the aftermath of his amnesia. Arguably, the authorities failed him in this regard. If my suspicion that the loss of his official identity had a greater impact on Kyle than his amnesia is correct, then this moral failure can teach us something about the nature of personal identity. They show that what matters for the continued existence of persons through time is not just their memory or the survival and the genetic history of their bodies. What matters just as much is that there are other persons and institutions that can 'hold them in their identity' regardless of how their physical and mental lives might change. If we were not social creatures and as such dependent on rituals of identification and re-identification, metaphysical questions about identity would hardly matter. These questions become significant because our social lives are ordered around the notion that we have a unique and lasting identity as persons, which roughly overlaps with our physical existence.

Typically, issues of recognition have been relegated to the realm of social identity. And as one particular influential philosophical story suggests, social identity is quite different from personal identity. The concept of personal identity picks out the individual features that make you unique and tracks these features through time; and the standard metaphysical accounts of personal identity try to find such uniqueness either in the body or in memories and psychological coherence. The concept of social identity, on the other hand, picks out features that mark you as a member of a community: a family, a club, a church or a nation. These features do not make someone unique, they track similarities to other people. At first glance then, these social identities seem like very poor criteria of personal identity: something I share with other people is hardly something that could explain why and how I remain the same person over time. Michael Quante puts the point as follows: 'When we speak of ... national or cultural "identity", then we do not mean numerical identity, but a kind of normative or evaluative concept shared by members of a social entity.'

Yet supposedly unique and unchangeable bodily and psychological criteria of personal identity turn out to be fragile upon closer investigation. Many of the things that we might like to consider grounding features of our identity are in fact not. We forget things. Our bodies change radically over the course of a lifetime. When we pay close attention to our consciousness, focusing only on our 'inner self', it seems to disintegrate into a stream of randomly juxtaposed impressions. This disintegration was famously observed by David Hume, in his meditations on personal identity in the Treatise:

For my part, when I enter most intimately into what I call myself, I always stumble on some particular perception or other, of heat or cold, light or shade, love or hatred, pain or pleasure. I never can catch myself at any time without a perception, and never can observe anything but the perception. ... The mind is a kind of theatre, where several perceptions successively make their appearance; pass, re-pass, glide away, and mingle in an infinite variety of postures and situations.

If you think about this issue as philosophers do, it might even turn out that there is no self, no coherent history and no identity. By far the most influential contemporary version of these 'no self' views was developed by the late Derek Parfit, in his monumental work Reasons and Persons, where he argues that 'identity is not what matters'. He comes to this practical and moral conclusion from his metaphysical stance: for Parfit, there is no plausible metaphysical criterion for what constitutes the survival of a person that has the same logical qualities as identity. Since caring about identity is supposedly nothing more than caring about survival, we should not, in fact, care about whether we will remain self-identical beings.

Parfit shows that what matters in ordinary survival – which he defines as the continuity of mental and physical life – can come in degrees and that it can branch – at least in science-fiction cases and thought experiments. I will discuss Parfit's view in more detail further, since it sets the stage for many discussions of personal identity in contemporary analytical philosophy. For now, I want to emphasize the crucial philosophical choice that frames Parfit's entire discussion of identity and survival. He thinks that our metaphysical view of identity and survival should inform our practical concerns. If there is no criterion of survival that fits the logical structure of identity, then we should adapt our practical concerns accordingly; if there is 'no further fact of identity', then we should worry less about ourselves and care more about others. Parfit describes this as a liberation from the self:

When I believed that my existence was ... a further fact, I seemed imprisoned in myself. My life seemed like a glass tunnel, through which I was moving faster every year, and ta the end of which there was darkness. When I changed my view, the walls of my glass tunnel disappeared. I now live in the open air. There is still a difference between my life and the lives of other people. But the difference is less. Other people are closer.

Yet the philosophical path Parfit chooses in Reasons and Persons – to go from a metaphysical 'no self' view to practical conclusions – can also be walked in the opposite direction. And that is what I will do here. Instead of assuming that there is a metaphysical truth that should inform our treatment of identity puzzles, I shall begin from how these puzzles are treated in practice and work from there to our metaphysical questions. As the Benjaman Kyle case illustrates, philosophical puzzles about identity are entangled with social practices of recognition, both intimate and bureaucratic. And if I am right in my interpretation of Kyle's reaction to his ordeal, then these social practices matter a great deal more than metaphysicians like Parfit are willing to admit. These social practices can transcend the shifting natures of memory, mind and body, and thus offer a kind of stability that cannot be achieved by physical and psychological continuity alone. Parfit and his followers may dismiss this stability as pure fiction or as mere convention: my purpose here is to show that this dismissal is too quick.

If we begin with social practices of identification, then social identity does indeed matter for personal identity and survival – because being recognized as the same person over time matters. Being recognized as a friend, a family member or as a member of a larger community adds external stability to the changing nature of our minds and bodies. However, social identities are also fragile. People move; friendships fade; families and relationships break up. The pious become converts and apostates. Political allegiances shift. Communities change, merge and split into sub-cultures or are destroyed in political and social upheavals.

The modern nation-state was faced with the need to register stable identities in the face of massive cultural and social changes, and it had to fulfil this task without recourse to a universally agreed-upon metaphysical criterion of identity. It had to provide people with recognizable identities and, in response to this challenge, created administrative and legal facts, often seemingly ex nihilo. Modern bureaucracies have developed systems of identity management that transcend both the changeability of social ties and the changeability of individual bodily and mental features of individuals. These systems and their transnational interfaces make it possible to be recognized as the same person across different communities and countries. They make key points of your individual history legible to people who do not know you personally. They map the rights and entitlements we have as citizens and travellers. But where these systems fail, as they did in the case of Benjaman Kyle, the result can be the loss of an identity that is recognized by others and, consequently, the loss of one's moral and social status. Kyle himself suggested that authorities might have offered more help to him, had he not seemed like a 'bum' to officers and clerks that dealt with his case.


Excerpted from "The State and the Self"
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Copyright © 2017 Maren Behrensen.
Excerpted by permission of Rowman & Littlefield International, Ltd..
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Table of Contents

1. The Metaphysics of Identity / 2. Narrativity and Normativity / 3. Identity and Modern Statecraft / 4. Identity, Security and Trust / 5. Conclusion / Bibliography / Index

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